The Michigan Supreme Court recently issued two orders summarily reversing lower appellate court opinions that denied summary disposition to land owners in premises liability cases involving the open and obvious doctrine.
In Compau v Pioneer Res Co, LLC, Docket No. 151618, the Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s grant of summary disposition against the plaintiff, who had tripped and fallen over a railroad tie on the defendants’ racetrack property when she arrived to watch lawn mower races.
The Michigan Court of Appeals had ruled that the plaintiff stated a claim for ordinary negligence (based on the allegedly negligent configuration of the racetrack and its potential hazard to spectators) which did not implicate the open and obvious doctrine of premises liability. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the plaintiff had failed to state a claim of ordinary negligence, and that her premises liability claims were properly dismissed under the open and obvious doctrine.
In Stimpson v GFI Management Services, Inc, Docket No. 151368, the Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s grant of summary disposition against the plaintiff, who had slipped and fallen in the icy parking lot of her apartment complex while walking to her truck.
The Michigan Court of Appeals had ruled that the hazard posed by the ice met the “effectively unavoidable” special aspects exception to the open and obvious doctrine because the plaintiff had to use her truck to take her elderly dog to the designated dog run, and could not spread salt that might harm her dog’s paws.
The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the ice was not “inescapable” (i.e., “effectively unavoidable” under Hoffner v Lanctoe, 492 Mich 450 (2012)) because the plaintiff (1) selected the location where she parked her truck, (2) chose to use that vehicle even though she had a second vehicle parked under a carport, and (3) did not attempt to use the salt provided by the landlord near her apartment door.
This pair of decisions from the Supreme Court is noteworthy for the way in which the court resolved the applications for leave to appeal. The Supreme Court issued orders peremptorily reversing the Michigan Court of Appeals opinions and remanding for entry of summary disposition in favor of the defendants, rather than granting leave to appeal with full appellate briefing and argument.
This “shortcut” for resolution of applications saves time and judicial resources in cases which the Supreme Court perceives as clear-cut and meritorious. This signals that the current Supreme Court views the existing precedent on premises liability cases invoking the open and obvious doctrine as sufficiently clear, and sees no need to develop it through the granting of leave to appeal. This also sends a message to the Michigan Court of Appeals that its judges should simply apply the precedent as written, and stop trying to avoid that law through “fact-specific” deviations therefrom.
Moreover, the Supreme Court’s willingness to take action at all on two unpublished appellate court cases signals that it is receptive to intervening on behalf of defendants in premises liability cases where the lower courts simply “got it wrong.” Oftentimes, review by the Supreme Court is denied in cases where the appellate reached the wrong result, but did so in an unpublished opinion that technically does not impact the state of Michigan law.
These decisions bode well for obtaining appellate relief in cases where the trial court or Michigan Court of Appeals has misapplied premises liability law against the landowner defendant, and reaffirm the state of Michigan premises liability law as well-settled in favor of landowners.
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